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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Banh You? Bánh mì!

No matter how “real” you keep it, presentation counts. This is especially true with food. If I had long ago told Ms. Slab
“Here, have some pickle-cilantro sandwich. With hot sauce and three mystery meats. And extra Mayo, that sh*t is good, yo.”
she probably would’ve pointed the remote at me to try and change the channel. But here’s how I really got her hooked on the Banh Mi:
“You probably don’t want this, it has three types of pork each more delicious than the last. And a bunch of fresh, crisp, slimming veggies with beta carotene and whatever it is that makes Oil of Olay good for your skin. I’d let you try some, but it’ll party in your mouth, and I know you already partied too hard at breakfast with Farmer Jones and that Jimmy Dean kid.”
You see the technique? Start with reverse psychology; introduce the concept of flavor layers; add a dollop of balance; make stuff up about health and fitness; and end with a little guilt.

Bingo. Ms. Slab bit, and the rest is history. Since then we have savored many fine Banh Mi excursions together... as well we should. After all, a really good Banh Mi is something you long to revisit.

But what excatly is it? A tasty Vietnamese Sandwich, the words bánh and translate literally as cake [of] wheat. The standard handheld model has roast pork, paté, and “pork roll” (which can run the range from ham to spam, or bologna to head cheese); shredded daikon and carrot pickle; fresh cilantro; fresh chiles; hot sauce, fish sauce, and mayonnaise, all served on a hot toasted baguette.

In Vietnam some say they use a baguette made with rice flour, but regular French-style rolls are the norm in New York. One dictionary translates ô bánh mì as a loaf of bread and it’s true, they can come unstuffed with a dipping curry or stew (like Malaysian roti). But no matter the style, Banh Mi are traditionally eaten at breakfast (like the Irish McGriddle).

I first caught Banh Mi fever almost a decade ago, and it remains one of my favorite sandwiches. The sum is far tastier than the parts could ever suggest. When it works, this unique flavor combination does wonders for my mood and self-esteem. Eat one and you'll feel 30 pounds lighter and 20 pounds smarter. This is doubly true (60/40) in the summer: the cool veggies and sliced chiles make it as refreshing as anything with three meats can be.

Before setting out to try one, let me clue you in on the most important rule: eat it fresh.

A gimongous portion of this sandwich’s appeal lies in its balancing act. The best versions have clear, contrasting flavors (cool/spicy, salty/sweet, rich meat/fresh veggies) and textures (toasty/chewy, crispy/creamy). The bread should be toasted on the spot, the meats added first, and the veggies last.

Dive in quick and you'll be singing like a freaky Canadian on Canada Day. But wait too long to eat, and you’ll be left to rue a lukewarm blob that could’ve been a great sandwich. For this reason and this reason alone, if you have narcolepsy please consider a different lunch option.

Time: Not On Your Side
Note the differences in texture, appearance, and edibility
between a freshly-made Banh Mi (Left), and one
that has been neglected for one hour or more (Right).

Most spots serve several varieties of Banh Mi. Standard fillings include grilled pork, meatballs, sardines, or chicken. This is all well and good, but The Porkchop Express likes to keep things old school. We stuck to the classic “roast pork” formula, and asked for "spicy" (which should include hot sauce and fresh chile slices). Please bear in mind that our patent-pending NASA-tested 5-Earl©®™ ratings scale reflects our assessment of only this version.

So without further ado, we present Part 1 of the Quest for the Best Banh Mi.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Ba Xuyên

The good folks at Ba Xuyên call their version of the "classic" the "Bánh Mì Paté Tht Ngui (#1)," but by any name it would taste as good. This is one fine sandwich.

The first thing you notice is the bread. It looks burnt but isn’t; it’s toasted til the last exit on the road to delicious, then buttered like a Frenchman. This is a gutsy move on their part. Right from go they take you to the limit and dare you to bite.
Speaking of which, manageable bites are helpful with the Banh Mi. The best way to get that party started in your mouth is to taste each flavor level simultaneously, and in that regard, the BX's proportions were just right.

As far as taste, quantum thermonuclear motion particle scientists have done extended photosynthetic gamma ray studies and determined that the Banh Mi’s greatest flavor concentrations lie in… hold it, hold it… the meat. So how was theirs?

BX’s so-called "Pork Terriyaki" (Vietnamese ham?) looked and tasted like sliced, fatty Chinese chiar siu, but their chopped BBQ (Nem Nủớng) was more distinguished: a tasty, slightly carmelized roast, livened up by garlic and ground pepper.

Banh Mi meisters sometimes skimp on the cilantro, and I really don’t know why. This fresh herb offers a subtle “yang” oasis of clean flavor in an otherwise savory “yin” meat-field; because whole stems are used, they provide additional crispness; and they naturally freshen your breath, in case a regular Banh Mi excursion turns into a romantic Banh Mi romp.

Fear not, Ba Xuyen passed the cilantro test no problem with a portion that was generous but not overbearing. They also handled the pickle with class (sharp enough, and not overly sweet). A single spear of cuke and a lot of ground pepper sealed the deal.

To be honest, the biggest shortcoming in this sandwich was the lack of heat. There wasn't much hot sauce added, and the jalepeno content was negligible. (When I go back I’ll make it a point of emphasis.) But this is a minor quip. I’m hard-pressed to remember 3 bucks spent better in Brooklyn in a very long time. When you go, splurge for an Iced Coffee and thank Earl you found this spot.

Ba Xuyên
4222 Eighth Avenue
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY
Classic Banh Mi: $3.00

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An Dong

The Express rolled up to a spot I had visited some years back: An Dong, on 54th and 8th in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I have very fond memories of this corner store, in part because of the tasty sandwich but also because of the atmosphere: a couple of old video games circa Street Fighter 2, and a few old Vietnamese guys hanging out. They weren’t drinking beers and listening to that Ahmad song "Back in the Day," but they might as well have been. It had the same infectious, laid-back “summer in the city” feel.

Times change. To my utter dismay, this place is now a cellphone outlet. The video games remained, but nary a sandwich was in sight. And the tight-lipped saleswoman was totally unclear about former owner Nin Van Dang’s whereabouts. But I hear his daughter opened a Banh Mi shop in Manhattan which The Porkchop Express will report on soon.

It was only strike one, but it felt like two if you count both the sandwich and the good vibe. On the plus side, there was a place nearby called the "Ho Ho Market."

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Thanh Đa Inc. II

Heading to Thanh Da isn’t quite like ducking down a Saigon alley, but it still feels adventurous. For starters, the tiny storefront isn’t on 8th Avenue (as their card claims) but a few doors down 57th Street. They also have a steady stream of customers that, in such close quarters, gave the place a "disco" buzz. Brisk business bodes well with Banh Mi spots, as high turnover usually means fresh sandwiches... and I was ready to do the hustle.

Thanh Da II is run by the same jovial fellow behind the near-identically-named Thanh Da I (around the corner on 7th). He wore a cool hat, and kept the line moving with a constant rotation of bread in the toaster oven, and cups of ice "aching to be filled” with creamy hot Vietnamese coffee.

Thanh Da serves up a yummy sammy for $2.75. The "Vietnamese" ham was probably thick-cut Boar's Head, or a similar New York Deli-style lunchmeat. It provided some smokey goodness, but also a bit too much salt. The pickles were mild, and not too sugary. But BBQ stole the show here: it was deep dark crimson red, with terrific crispy chunks that can only follow slow roasting and careful seasoning. Great stuff, maybe the best of the Sunset Park neighborhood.

Where’s the Pork?

Still… take a look at the picture, and you’ll notice something missing: volume. Specifically, meat. Not enough meat. Now if this were The Lima Bean Express, we might not care. But sweet Jesus, it's not... and we were doubly depressed, given the pork’s tastiness.

In my head I turned to Mr. Jolly Hat and said oh, you tease! But in reality I figured he might get the wrong idea, so I grumbled in silence. Buster Keaton silence. You know, where he already saved the girl, but he's still dead broke and his back is sore, and now she's not putting out.

Seriously, this was a minor shame. Thanh Da has the hard parts down (good fresh ingredients, a way with pork). Just put more stuff in the damn sandwich, and you've got a winner that can ride with any of The Porkchop Express big boys.

As it is, this place is worth checking out especially if you like that crowded, hole-in-the-wall vibe and nice hats. Add another $1.50 for a fine iced coffee, and you could do far worse for less than 5 bucks.

Thanh Đa Inc. II
5624B 8th Avenue
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY
Classic Banh Mi: $2.75

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The Porkchop Express had high hopes when Hanco’s opened at the corner of Smith and Bergen. It was a welcomed change of pace in a neighborhood dominated by so-so bistros and increasingly happenin' bars. Still, the big Bubble Tea advert in their window gave me pause (wrong country). Was this one of those Asian-fusion pyramid scheme places, with “Vietnamese-Sino-Thai-Malaysian-etc.” cuisine?

Thankfully no. Almost everything on their modest menu is from the motherland. They offer 6 different sandwiches, including grilled chicken, grilled pork, and sardine, but we were there for the “Classic” only.
Banh Mi always begins with a loaf, and Hanco’s was real nice: toasted golden, and chewy enough to absorb the various flavors lodged inside. But those flavors lacked balance: their Vietnamese ham/paté/“roast” pork combo was just too salty. I say “roast” because I’m just not convinced. This had the look and taste of quick panwork, or excessive microwaving. Their shredded pickle showed a similar carelessness, like they had just tossed some daikon and carrot in sugar-water and forgot about it. Paired with the salty meats, this really wasn’t the Banh Mi I have come to know and love. They did bring the heat, but only from red sauce; there was nary a trace of fresh, crisp chiles. And their cilantro portion was modest at best.

At $4.25, Hanco’s Classic was exorbitantly expensive on the scale of Banh Mi prices. I was hoping for something sportier and more affordable (like a VW), and got “stiffed with a Hummer.” No doubt a reflection of the hood (Boerum Hill, which The New York Times effusively dubbed "a culinary melting pot" last month). But this Banh Mi was pretty ho-hum at any price. It might do in a pinch, or a drunken haze. But this is nothing to wax eloquent on by any stretch of the Earl-magination.

Hanco’s Bubble Tea & Vietnamese Sandwich
85 Bergen Street
Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, NY (718) 858-6818
Classic Banh Mi: $4.25

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Earl

I just went outside and asked my neighbor, two teenagers and a drifter the following question:

Do you love sandwiches?

The response? Overwhelming: 100% yes.

So what if the kids flipped me off, and the vagrant answered my question with a question (yeah, I had a quarter). Just riddle me this: how could one food-thing be so appealing to so many, so unambiguously? What is it about the sandwich that tantalizes and captivates, that seduces like lotion, whipped cream and scented mayonnaise combined? Why does it flat-out yell “eat me”? And why is it so often delicious?

I had a made-up story in mind that answered every one of these questions and then some. It involved a swami, a duck, and some piping hot naan. It took place in India, in a time long ago. It rivaled the Rigvedic hymns for sheer drama and holiness, but wasn’t so high and mighty that the average Joe couldn’t relate. It made liberal use of 36 “kama sutra” positions, but not in a way that might offend the chaste. And it starred that delightful couple that everyone loves.

But then I realized the story made no sense and had nothing to do with sandwiches. Why stretch a truth so near and, quite probably, dear? For you kind reader, and to address our nagging questions in earnest, The Porkchop Express headed to the library. Only then did we discover that like many good things in life the sandwich owes its name to an Earl. Who came from England. Sandwich, England.

Game Recognize Game
From L-R:
Julia Child, Snoop Dogg,
LeBron James,
The 4th Earl of Sandwich

John Montagu (1718-1792), the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, was a man of loose morals and sharp contradictions: Cambridge graduate, Lord of the Admiralty, and member of the notorious Hellfire Club; corrupt and incompetent, but never short for work. Some say Montagu's bumbling tenure with the British navy helped America win its independence. Others called him “Jeremy Twitcher” for selling a friend down the river. And many took his retirement from public life as cause for a day-long celebration. So why do we now celebrate his name?

Let's blame it on an enthusiastic Frenchman. After spending a year in London in 1765, Pierre Jean Grosley acquired a taste for a marvellous new dish: the sandwich. In his 1770 travelogue Londres, he alerted the world to this TONY snack and its curious origin. The story went as follows:

Montagu, Earl of Sandwich loved loafing and gambling. Sometimes he did both at the same time. During one 24-hour card bender, his stomach raised a fuss. Assuming he had made arrangements to relieve himself, the conversation must have gone something like this:

Stomach: John boy, old gaffer... what gives. I’m dyin’ here. It’s literally been a day since you’ve gotten up, innit. Great googly, old chum, can’t you hear me grumbling?

The Earl: Alright, you bloody whinger. Keep schtum and quit grizzling, old chap. (aside) Servant, fetch me some meat! Do we have any cheese? Not even the cheddar? But I told you—ah bollocks, never mind. No, I said never mind. Just put a bumf of that roast beef betwixt some toast. And bring me a pickle!

And thus the sandwich was born.

Quite frankly, genius can be tasty even when it isn’t pretty. Take Montagu's shining moment. Slob or no, in this one flash of compelling and infinite wisdom he pioneered something wonderful: a dish of remarkable adaptability and staying power. The Earl was not the first to stuff savory between wheat–credit should go to the Jewish sage Hillel some 2 millennia prior. But there's a simple reason why we eat sandwiches and not hillels: the wise one's combo (Passover lamb and bitter herbs on matzoh) never quite hit like roast beef.

What Montagu did may not have been original (in the strictest sense), but it was pretty damn sweet. I think the Earl of Sandwich website puts it best:

From then on it did not matter if you were fighting a great sea-battle or laying down a Royal Flush, you could eat great food without too much fuss.

Preach on. If The Porkchop Express is about anything, it’s about precisely that: bringing great food to people without too much fuss. We noted from the start that this would be a journey, faithful readers—a quest for delicious. And we believe one sure route is via the sandwich.

Sandwiches are like the wolverines of the culinary world: modest in stature, often overlooked, but pound for pound nothing can beat them. I’d put a sandwich up against Mike Tyson or Margaret Thatcher in their primes, and bet you two slices and some filling will come out first. I’ll fight this point to the death.

From peanut butter & jelly to fried clam rolls, roast turkey clubs to golden grilled cheese, Reubens and falafels to Cubans and shawarmas… the sandwich can match me mood-for-mood and whim-for-whim. I never tire of her, because she takes on so many forms with flair and... relish.

Also, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Marshmellow fluff-stuffed banana bread? Why not, you’ve already had your vegetables. Prime rib on an olive roll? Go nuts, Mr. Fancy Pants. Leg of donkey on rye? Whatever floats your boat, champ... it’s America!

Seriously, if there's a more democratic meal I’d like to know. Anyone with a few bucks and a clean hand or hook can always eat well… so long as they call upon The Earl. Which brings us to our point.

For the past few weeks, The Porkchop Express has shared good food and folks with you, hungry reader. We are now proud to unveil a new section of The Express long in the making: a Quest for the Best Sandwich in New York, a/k/a The Earl.

NYC has a vibrant sandwich culture, and there probably aren't many places in the world that do so many different types so well. We will try our best to taste a few and spread the good word. Before heading on this road we hereby pledge the following:

  1. To search for the best sandwiches in New York City and beyond
  2. To neither post in vain nor accept a bribe
  3. To represent Delicious to the fullest
With that said, check back in one week for our very first installment…

Note to readers
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the sandwich is “An article of food for a light meal or snack, blah blah blah two slices of bread, blah blah with a filling. Occasionally with only one slice blah blah blah blah open-faced sandwich, biscuits, buns, cake, etc.”

But The Porkchop Express was more confused than ever, so we rounded up the Braintrust to debate the relative sandwich-ness of foodstuffs that may or may not be sandwiches, like “knuckle” and “spring roll” and “yakisoba on white.” Is a calzone a sandwich? What about a "wrap"?

This great debate is far from over. We want to hear from anyone from anywhere who cares even the slightest. Have you ever made culinary love to a sandwich? Is there one you're curious about? Just email us or post a suggestion, and we'll take it from there...

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Enter the Kiełbasa

The Poles are renowned for their hospitality, and with good reason. Tradition is on their side. One of the earliest legends dates back to the year 1000, when King Bolesław the Brave held a 3-day feast to end all 3-day feasts. Poland’s cuisine, Slavic in origin, was shaped by such good-humored nobles, folks with extreme gusto for flavor and event-planning. But even back then, you didn’t have to roll with rulers to enjoy fine food. Cupboards were marked by their relative abundance and variety, and multi-course meals were the norm rather than the exception.

During Poland’s Golden Age (1385–1569), exciting new imports—the spoils of trade and war—were collected from around Europe and happily put to use. We might therefore call this period the “Smoked Meat Age.” It’s more accurate. After all, this was when Poles developed their taste for rich, fatty sausages laced with expensive spices; when they entered the Kielbasa.

Countries are like people; most have a thing that comes naturally and fits picture-perfect. Amongst other things, Poland has sausage. And thankfully for us, they share. Like my buddy Wojciech, for example. I wasn’t in Wrocław more than 20 minutes before he prepared a truly classic midnight snack: Krakowska Sucha kielbasa with rye and butter, and some cold Żywiec beers.

A few days later, he and Karolina took me to see Franciszek Oborski. Franek is an art historian who lives at the Zamek Wojnowice. A castle about 25 km outside of town, his pad triples as an art gallery, a country inn, and a highly-regarded restaurant. Franek is a gracious host and a man of stellar priorities. We weren’t there long before he served the most delicious kielbasa I’d ever tasted in my life.

I was pretty damn shameless in my enthusiasm, but Franek was patient. He let me blab, then smiled a big Polish St. Nick smile and dropped this gem:

“When I was a student, I used to chase the kielbasa.”
“No longer…”

No joke, the soup I was gobbling had crazy kielbasa. You couldn’t dip your spoon without finding at least three delicious stragglers. Not to mention the cold cut plate. But what was he getting at? I didn’t pay it much thought, and then it struck me. Brilliant.

When Franek was young and broke, and had only a single slice of sausage to liven up his rye, he would push that slice over his bread as he ate. He “chased the kielbasa” to the end of his meal. He stretched his flavor-dollar to the fullest, and cherished that final bite twice as much. This had to be simultaneously one of the wisest and most moving things I had ever heard in my life. To this day, it’s impossible to think about my Polish friends without getting sentimental. After all, they taught me a valuable life-lesson: kielbasa rules.

* * * * *

Good Polish kielbasa is versatile like bacon and plump like bosom. Its smokey goodness and tubular girth make it a logical substitute for the cigar. A healthy fat content gives it a ribald texture. It woos you with flavor, kills you with kindness, and tempts you with possibility.

It's hard to convey the significance of kielbasa in Poland, but imagine something that nourishes, relaxes, brings people together, washes the dishes, takes you for a walk, makes you pancakes, and irons your underwear. It satiates and comforts, serves and delivers. You can eat it cold, boiled, fried or grilled. You can serve a link with potatoes, or throw slabs in zurek (white borscht) or bigos (rich hunter’s stew). Eat some with breakfast eggs, or on a slice of soft light Rye with sweet butter. Serve it to good friends on lazy afternoons or crisp evenings. Use it as deodorant before a night on the town. And if your curiosity is piqued and you live near Brooklyn, head down to Steve’s Meat Market in Greenpoint.

The first time I found Steve’s I was heading elsewhere for dinner, but something drew me inside. It was probably the couple hundred links hanging from the rafters, and the “je ne sais quoi” smell that comes from a couple hundred links hanging from the rafters. That, combined with my Pookie-like fever for kielbasa.

Steve’s smokes all of their meats on-premises, and serves 100% pork links. That alone should get the conversation started, but the first thing that struck me was how damn nice they were. They have been in business since 1972, and it's easy to see why. I asked for kielbasa but didn’t know what kind…so they started cutting off pieces. A smooth spicy link, a lean chunky link, a thin hearty link… within 3 minutes I was stuffed. But I also got a crash course in what I liked (the spicy one, the air-dried one), and what I wanted to try (all of the above and a few more). I quickly came to appreciate the variation, and the fact that although most kielbasa are delicious, no two are alike. The butchers at Steve’s were generous, but also super smart. Their product speaks for itself: get a taste and you’ll be back.

I’m Your Pusher
Steve’s Posse from L-R:
Stanislaw (“Stash”),
Jozef, and Sebastian (“Ritchie”)

No joke, you’d have to be Skinflint O'Cheap to walk out of Steve's empty-handed, and even then it doesn’t seem possible if you have hands. Screw it, there is absolutely no reason to leave here empty-handed; if you’re missing both hands, just ask them to throw a bag around your no-hand arm-stumps. And when you do, try one of the following:

  • The double-smoked Weselna ($3.75/lb). A great everyday sausage, smooth and tasty. Generously spiced with ground pepper, this link is very versatile. You can enjoy it cold with Rye bread and butter, or piping hot with a frosty Piast.
  • The air-dried Kabanosy ($5.00/lb). This is for anyone who has ever bought “Slim Jims” more than once. A thin, dark link with intense flavor. Try it with a Tyskie (Wojciech's favorite), or a cold glass of vodka.
  • The Lomzynska ($3.50/lb). The chunkiest and juiciest of the lot, this link was also the least smoky. On the flip side, it had the purest “pork” flavor.
  • The Mysliwska ($3.50/lb). Firm and full-bodied, with a medium texture. Nice chunks of fat say "grill me." Flavor-wise it falls somewhere in-between the Lomzynska and the Weselna.

Steve’s also smokes great hams, and I’d suggest some of their homemade Szynka sliced thin enough to appreciate its juicy, melt-in-the mouth goodness. Give the Synka od Kosci (boneless ham) a whirl too. The subtle, restrained taste reminded me of a cob-smoked Vermont variety; both would be equally at ease with pancakes or a sandwich. And if you’re still in the mood, pick up some stuffed cabbage to go; heat it up later and relive the memories. Steve’s niece Melissa will send you off with one of their hilarious bags. (I should add that Melissa is Steve’s vegetarian niece. Which boggles the mind. I can’t imagine being a vegetarian and working here. Einstein already looked into this, and concluded it couldn’t be done.)

On a recent trip to Steve’s, I got off at the wrong subway stop and decided to walk. It turns out I had landed in a sort of Bermuda Triangle of kielbasa. The block of Manhattan Avenue just south of Kent has four meat markets, and both neighborhood hardware stores I passed featured sausage stuffers in their windows. These were good signs.

After scoping out the territory, I committed to the enigmatically named W-Nassau Meat Market. W-Nassau is one of the most crowded butchers I have ever visited, Polish or otherwise. They have been in business since 1981, and (like Steve’s) do their smoking out back. For sheer variety, they can't be beat. They stock everything from smoked ribs and links and hams to Polish breads, hot dishes, and sundry goods. The line is long but moves quickly (thanks to a very efficient staff). No nonsense tho; make your choices, and meet your meat at the register.

I tried four different links from W-Nassau, my favorite of which was their inspirational take on the Weselna ($4.00/lb). One look at the slightly charred skin and you knew “double-smoked” was a pledge they took seriously. Theirs was firmer in texture than Steve’s, with far less pepper and a clear smoky, garlicky flavor. Very aromatic. The Kabanosy ($4.40/lb) was also nicely done, though it tasted a bit milder than I had expected.

W-Nassau's Mysliwska and Podwawelska links (both $4.00/lb) added some beef to the mix, but skip those and give the fresh-smoked Hunter’s Ham ($4.55/lb) a go instead. It makes a great substitute for carrot sticks, especially when paired with some of their delicious light Rye bread and a jar of fresh pickles (made in Maspeth). And that, my friends, is one fine date!

Steve’s Meat Market
104 Nassau Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 383-1780/2041

W-Nassau Meat Market
915 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 389-6149

A Quick Guide to Kielbasa

Kielbasa has almost as many varieties as the word “snow” in Eskimo. To add to the confusion, two versions of the same sausage may taste wildly different. But don’t be deterred; The Porkchop Express has you covered with this wallet-sized list to consult when buying links. Print one out and take it with you. Round off your request with a heartfelt thanks (dziękuję, pronounced something along the lines of dzhiin-quee-yeh), and get your sausage on. And let us know what you find.

Til Tuesday,

—J. Slab


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Farm Fresh

I was going to call this post Eggheads, or Eggsellent, or Eggstravaganza! But when it comes to eggs, The Porkchop Express is dead serious. Serious like a fox. A fox who loves ham omelettes.

Most good eats begin with good ingredients, and this is especially true of eggs. As it so happens, the recipe for a good egg is pretty simple: Farm Fresh. The fresher the better. Do you remember that old Seinfeld episode where Kramer spits his “sweatshop hen” scrambleds back on the plate? He was on point, a point I was determined to punctuate.

Still, I had never actually sat down and run taste tests. So I picked up a goofy egg pan (non-stick, chicken motif, perfect for frying one egg) and three dozen farm fresh specimens to answer one of life’s great questions: do happy hens make tastier eggs? Let’s find out.

Knoll Krest Farm has been family-owned for about 60 years, and it shows. They run a tight ship, but still preserve that human touch. Their menu consists of 6 smiling eggs, a few squares of cardboard, and some strategically-applied duct tape. They had a few chickens for sale, but I stuck to the mission.

Henry of Knoll Krest clearly knows his trade, and he was kind enough to school me on the basics of eggology. Here are a few morsels. Brown and white eggs come from different hens (the Rhode Island Red and the White Leghorn respectively), but the flavor is indistinguishable. The only noteworthy difference is the shell strength (browns are harder), so base your choice upon crack-style and wrist-capacity. Also, hens do 85% of their laying from around 17 weeks to 18 months of age. Even in chicken years, poultry seem to be growing up fast these days.

Knoll Krest’s hens are vegetarian. They peck at natural ingredients, and roam free indoors. With the bird flu scare rising, Henry was quick to note that they also get blood tests at least once a month (a logistical nightmare, I'd imagine). If these birds are amongst the healthiest, their eggs are some of the freshest; they are brought to market the day after they drop.

I sampled both ends of the spectrum: Jumbo browns ($3.00/doz.) and Baby whites ($1.25/dozen). Henry confided that his favorite way to eat an egg was raw. My heart was willing, but my flesh was weak. Since I had just stopped training for Rocky 6 last week, I went with option #2 and decided to fry them both sunnyside-up in butter.

Terrific. I usually think of fried eggs as the final frontier, but not in an exciting way. It’s what I eat when I’m feeling lazy, am out of Ramen, and don’t have enough cash to order delivery. But these eggs had something special that called me back for seconds. Both the Jumbo and the Baby were rich and fresh, with nice light whites and clean-tasting yolks.

Tale of the Tape
Baby White and Jumbo Brown
Note the Baby's cloudy white,
and relatively high yolk volume

If I had to choose I’d say the Baby won out for sheer sweetness. This small, young egg is naturally cholesterol-free, and the yolks (which have yet to fully form) lack even a hint of bitterness. When people describe non-creamy foods as “creamy,” this is what they mean: a butter-poached baby egg less than 24 hours from the farm.

Knoll Krest might be a tough act to follow, but Tello’s Green Farm was more than up to the task. Nestor and Alejandra Tello got started in Duchess County in 2000. Both hail from Colombia, where they honed their egging skills. Their pedigree is top-notch: each comes from an agricultural family, and Nestor received his degree in veterinary medicine. The smiles are even more telling. These are folks who love what they do, and that good cheer is infectious.
Alejandra Tello, talkin' eggs

Don't just take my word for it, visit their stand. The most endearing part of the Tello experience is the small photo album they keep up front. Flip through and you will see where they live. With their chickens. Chickens are everywhere: under shelters (that Nestor made), in the fields, trailing a tractor, roaming the yard. These hens aren’t simply free-range; they have a veritable run of the land. Tello’s egg cartons proudly note “happy chickens,” and it’s not difficult to see why.

Their sign claims that they sell veggies too, but I didn’t see any and didn’t feel like pressing Alejandra. Why bother? Eggs were the stars of the show, all browns (from Long Island Reds), save a small number of blue-green Araconas that had already sold out.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to smile at these specimens. One dozen Extra-Larges so plump, they barely fit the carton. Each egg a different shade, from dark-flecked caramel to creamy café-au-lait. And yolks a proud, fiery orange. As charming as Ms. Tello was, I couldn’t wait to get home.

I immediately put an XL ($3.25/doz.) to the sunnyside-up test. And as for the taste, well…once again, terrific. In fact, I’ve eaten three more just while writing this. They're so good, they'll lodge in your brain. You'll find yourself walking numbly to a silly pan with a hen on the handle, melting some butter, and quickly cooking an egg. My wife thinks I've gone daffy, and maybe she's right. That's the power of Farm Fresh.

How else to eat? You can never go wrong with the ham omelette. You might also try tossing a few with a little heavy cream and some chives. And if you have any extra, they make terrific pasta, crêpes, or buttermilk pancakes. Above all, have fun. Respect the egg and your happiness will know no bounds. Not if you keep these puppies (chicklets?) handy.

Both farms sell directly from the Union Square Farmers Market in Manhattan. Knoll Krest operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays, Tello’s on Mondays and Fridays. Earlier is better for a full selection (they go fast). Better still, if you find yourself in Duchess County see if you can pick a few fresh from the hen.

Knoll Krest Farm
Clinton Corners, NY
(845) 266-3845/3720

Tello's Green Farm
Red Hook, NY
(845) 758-5058